Thursday, February 18, 2010

America's Cup Race: Is this really sport?

The recent America's cup nonrace victory by the BMW Oracle team's S-90 behemoth demonstrates what happens when technology trumps humanity in competition. It demonstrates what happens when sport no longer becomes a test of individual or team skill, training and effort matched against each other on a playing field. When does an competitive activity cease to be a sport between humans and reduce to a technological arms race?

You have two high trained human beings with roughly equivalent skills, tenacity, and  training regimes. In normal competition they would each beat each other fifty percent of the time. But suddenly one wears a swimming suit with special bouyancy and friction attributes; that swimmer now wins 100 percent of the time. Two equal tennis players; one now uses a newly developed racket with a larger sweet spot and greater recoil; now she wins 100 percent of the time. At this point we are no longer witnessing sports competition based upon human attributes and discipline, but technologically mediated advantages that nullify skill and judgment.

Most sports from NASCAR to softball manage the balance between human competition and technologically enhanced superiority with severe regulation of technology. The attempts are two fold. First, they try to keep the sports human based and second to ensure a level and fair playing field where if there is a technological innovation that creates assymetric competition, everyone has access to it.

The America's cup has always been the hobby of the rich. First the idle rich, then millionaires,  then multi-millionaires, now multi billionaires. The last race no longer reflects sailing skill, but superior technology. Larry Ellison of Oracle and  Swiss  billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, two time winner, have battled for a decade over rules and technology. Gone forever are the beautiful old fashioned monohulls of Captain Courageous Ted Turner. Those boats relate to the modern hulls as a biplane to a jet.

The BMW-Oracle Godzilla  is an awesome technological marvel. At the cost of 200 million dollars (its' OK, the Alginhi side spent over 200 million also) the boat represents multiple revolutions in technology. Now a tri-hull versus Alginhi's catamaran, it carried a rigid wing for its sail 18 stories tall. It's three hull catamaran construction permitted it to literally fly through the wind and sail close to the wind in unimagined ways even four years ago. It simply destroyed the Alinghi boat by virtue of its quantum superiority in design. Images of the boat with two of its three hulls out of water entranced people who follow the billionaires' squabble from afar.

To me the race symbolizes what happens when technology trumps sport. Minimal regulations exist that create something like an equal field so that the competition is not predtermined at the begining, not by the quality of the humans doing the sailing, but by the designers of the sail boat, or the new baseball bat, or the newest swim suit. The screwy America's Cup home advantage rules lead to innumerable legal battles, utter lack of sportsmanship and anger driven innovation.

Barring act of God, this race was over before it started, and it had nothing to do with the skill of the crews but of the engineers. Judgement and skill could simply not hope to overcome the technological differential, where is the sport in that? Where is the competition on the field in that?

In some ways I'll take soccer or basketball where the game remains fundamentally the same; same ball, same baskets, same shoes (no jet assists allowed yet).  The differences emerge from intelligence, developed skill, focus and the humanly controlled dimensions that make sport a human activity and a celebration that we can all share and admire because of our shared humanity.

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